VICTA Young Ambassador Claire-Louise Fallis interviews BBC presenter Baylen Leonard
Over the past few years, thanks to artists such as Taylor Swift and the hit TV show ‘Nashville’, Country music has become increasingly popular here in the UK and now there are several festivals that celebrate not just the music, but the Country lifestyle in general. Country to Country first started in 2013 at the O2 Arena and has been held there annually ever since. Due to its popularity it now takes place in London, Glasgow and Dublin across a weekend in March. It puts US artists in front of an ever growing fan base here, while showcasing our home-grown Country music talent on the free ‘pop up’ stages. One of the things I love most about the festival is the atmosphere, as soon as you walk into the O2 it feels like you’ve been transported to Music City with a variety of styles from Acoustic to full band sets. The success of Country to Country has paved the way for more nationwide festivals such as Buckle & Boots, Black Deer, Nashville Meets London and the upcoming The Long Road.
My love of Country music began in my teenage years when I picked up a copy of a LeAnn Rimes CD and couldn’t stop playing it. Of course back then many people here in the UK thought Country music was all about rhinestones, Stetsons and cowboy boots. And it wasn’t really considered ‘cool’ to admit to liking that kind of music. I never let that bother me though. As a writer I was drawn to the storytelling themes and the musician in me loved the instrumentation.
I was really excited when I discovered that I would be interviewing the creator of the up-coming ‘The Long Road’ festival, Baylen Leonard. Baylen was born in Bristol Tennessee, the official birthplace of Country music. He decided to make the move across the pond to London 17 years ago which he now calls home. Baylen has presented numerous shows on UK national radio including Radio 2, Radio 2 Country, and Radio 4, alongside local stations in London. I loved having the opportunity to chat with him and enjoyed talking to a like-minded person. In a way, it felt like more of a conversation with an old friend rather than an interview. Here’s what we chatted about.
You’ve come from Nashville to the UK, what encouraged you to make the move?
BLI just wanted to come over and see what it was like. I left Tennessee when I was 18 and moved to New York City. I wanted to live somewhere else. I didn’t want to become one of those Americans who only knew America, even though that’s fine. I wanted to see more of the world and the opportunity came up to work here and I’ve been here for 17 years. I definitely call it home now. I do love the fact that working in Country music I get to have a little bit of where I’m from, plus I love that Country music is taking off here so much.
What drew you to Country music initially?
BLIt’s just always been part of my DNA, it’s in my blood and in my bones. It’s a part of me and I couldn’t get rid of it even if I tried. I grew up in East Tennessee in a town called Bristol which is recognised as the official birthplace of Country music. The first commercial recordings of Country music were done in my hometown in 1927 and they were called the Bristol sessions. Johnny Cash called them ‘The Big Bang’ of Country music; they’ve been referred to as the single most important event in Country music history. I was surrounded by this music legacy, which I didn’t appreciate as much when l was growing up. It was only once I’d moved away that I started to realise just how important my little hometown was to Country music.
What advice would you give to aspiring Country music journalists?
BLI think just go with what you know. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t go out of your comfort zone, because that’s a good thing as well, but certainly what worked for me is returning to the things that were a part of me. Things that were important to me and that I was passionate about. Five years ago, I decided to only concentrate on Country music and while I had a fine career before that, I suddenly felt like a new world had opened up for me. I wasn’t trying to fit myself into somebody else’s box and was being true to myself.
Have you picked up any British habits or phrases? Are there any you’ve kept from home?
BLEvery time I go home to Tennessee people say I have a British accent. Of course no Brit would ever think I have a British accent! Americans always think I’m British for some reason, I don’t know if it’s the phrases I use or the pattern of speaking I’ve picked up. I definitely don’t have an accent; it’s funny because whenever I’m in America with Brits they are surprised that Americans think I’m British!
What got you into working on the radio?
BLI did a lot of voice-overs while living in New York and when I moved over here I met someone in the first week at a dinner party who asked me what I did. I told her I did voice-overs and it just so happened they were looking for an American to do voice-overs on the radio station she worked at. I ended up doing voice-overs on Radio 1 for the Sara Cox Breakfast Show, and that’s how it started. I always loved radio so decided to take a night school course in how to ‘drive a desk’, which is basically learning how to push buttons and work with faders, and I started doing work experience on BBC London. I kind of elbowed my way on air at BBC London and I was there for over a decade doing loads of on air stuff, I did the breakfast show, the drive-time show, pretty much every show on the dial really. Every now and again they would let me do a Country special on Bank holidays which was fun.
Some people debate what is Country and what isn’t. What’s your opinion on this?
BLGrowing up in Tennessee, I listened to all types of Country music and all sorts of influences. I just know it’s Country when I hear it. Like with Rock music, there’s so many different types of Country music. Just because you don’t like one type of Country music doesn’t mean that Country music isn’t for you, it just means that particular style may not be your type of Country. I think this is a debate that has been raging forever in Country music. People used to say that Johnny Cash was too ‘rock’ or Patsy Cline wasn’t Country because she had an orchestra in her music. Now nobody would disagree that they are not legends of Country music. I think if an artist says they’re Country, then they’re Country.
The Long Road Festival is coming up in the autumn, what made you pick a location in the Midlands?
BLI wanted to create a festival outside a major city. It’s really great that there’s so many artists coming over so frequently and it makes sense from a financial point of view why they play in the major cities, but I also know there are many fans of Country that live outside those major cities and struggle getting to London or Glasgow. It’s so expensive, and you have to travel so far and stay in a hotel. With The Long Road, I’ve made it a camping festival. I wanted people to be able to come, bring their tents or glamp and not have to worry about booking a hotel or anything like that.
I wanted somewhere that was going to be accessible for as many people as possible across the UK, and the Midlands seemed like the ideal place. I went and saw the site at Lutterworth and it just felt right, it’s easy to navigate round and there’s lots of space so we can grow as a festival in the coming years.
It sounds like Glastonbury but for Country music.
BLYeah, that’s the idea. I wanted to create this space where no matter what type of Country music you enjoy or what type of Americana you enjoy, or whether you’ve been a Country music fan for years or new to the genre, there would be stuff there not just musically but lifestyle wise and activity wise that you can get in to. It was important to have multiple stages. So if you do only like the new contemporary Country music you can hang out in that world. Or if you only like Rootsy music you can hang out in that world. Ideally, what will happen is that people will come for the stuff they like but then discover something they perhaps thought they wouldn’t like. They’ll get to discover the wide scope of Country and Americana music. Also because people will essentially be living there, my hope is that it will tighten the already established Country community here.
How long did it take to plan such a huge event?
BLIt took well over a year. The initial conversation about ‘The Long Road’ happened in February 2017. It’s been a long process but I wanted to make sure I got it right and I didn’t want to take any shortcuts. The reaction we’ve had so far from the community on social media has been amazing. They’ve even started their own TLR attendees group on Facebook!
Speaking to someone who shares the same interests as me was a truly fulfilling experience. It was great to listen to Baylen’s journey within radio and how he has been inspired to embrace the Country inside him. I hope to inspire others with my own Country music blog called CountrySong.co.uk started in 2017. A huge thank you to Baylen for giving his time and sharing his thoughts with me. And for my free tickets to ‘The Long Road’ festival! I truly can’t wait to join the party.
Watch this space for the next issue where I’ll be writing about my experience at The Long Road festival.
Written by Claire-Louise Fallis